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First-Generation Student Overcomes Challenges on Path to Wall Street Career

If you had asked 18-year-old Mohamad Merilan where he would be after college, he would not have said, “working on Wall Street.” Merilan is now working for Credit Suisse in the Research Clearance Technology division.

Mohamad Merilan

Merilan went from attending D-ranked public schools without the promise of higher education to graduating from the University of Florida with a job offer to work on Wall Street. Throughout his life thus far, Merilan embodies success, service and the American Dream.

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, as one out of eight children of two Haitian immigrant parents, Merilan’s father left the picture when he was 12 years old. As the sole English speaker among his family, he had to learn to write checks, manage his mother’s car insurance and handle her mortgage.  

Merilan was not introduced to the idea of college until sixth grade when his social studies teacher at Carver Middle School, Cynthia Davis, advocated for all her students to pursue a college education.

Merilan paired his telecommunication degree with campus involvement in programs like the Engineering Leadership Certificate, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, the National Society of Black Engineers, Florida Blue Key and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Out of all of his involvements, though, arguably his most influential contribution was holding golf clinics for minority engineering students. As a first-generation college student and a Machen Florida Opportunity Scholar, Merilan understands the importance of giving back and effecting change.

 Former University of Florida President Dr. Bernie Machen, Mohamad Merilan, David Whitney (Merilan's mentor) and University President Dr. Kent Fuchs.
From left: Former University of Florida President Dr. Bernie Machen, Mohamad Merilan, David Whitney (Merilan’s mentor) and University President Dr. Kent Fuchs.

His social studies teacher always advised Merilan that he would need to find a way to fund his college education since he was a child, and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship did just that. “Without the MFOS program, I wouldn’t have been able to attend college,” Merilan said.

Mentors such as Cynthia Davis, David Whitney and Dr. Tommy Dorsey have been key stakeholders in Merilan’s rise to success. “I don’t know where I would be if they weren’t primary influencers in my life.”

What I Learned from My Teacher of the Visually Impaired

Perkins School for the Blind, located in Watertown, Massachusetts, serves thousands of children and young adults with vision impairment worldwide. As part of an eLearning program for teachers of the visually impaired, Perkins created Paths to Technology an online community and resource for teachers, students, and their parents to support children and young adults with technology and their transition to adulthood.

Veronica is a student contributor to Paths to Technology, which is supported by the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.

Preparing for college when you have a vision impairment is a unique experience. Like many of my other peers, I had to learn how to fill out a college application, navigate my future college campus, and choose a laptop for school. But unlike my peers, I had to figure out which colleges would welcome students with vision impairment, how to create accessible materials, and learn how to use assistive technology software and devices that would help me to be successful in the classroom. These are skills my teacher of the visually impaired, or TVI for short, assisted me with developing so I could thrive once I got to college.

closeup of computer keyboard

My TVI frequently reminded me that I needed to learn important transition skills for college on my own and that I couldn’t just rely on my teachers for help. They taught me to ask questions about how I get my accommodations and accessible materials, so that way I wouldn’t be left wondering where to find large print textbooks or what font sizes and styles I can read. By the time I left high school, I could confidently hold a conversation about screen magnification, using colored backgrounds to reduce glare, how to make accessible documents on my computer, and even how to program the copier to enlarge classroom materials. I also could explain why I needed these accommodations and could identify what factors made things difficult for me to see, which was an invaluable skill for college.

When I was looking at colleges, my TVI encouraged me to develop an explanation for how I see, and describe the specific barriers I face with my sight loss. Instead of just sharing a diagnosis and expecting people to understand it, I was able to talk to staff at potential colleges about my issues with reading small print, walking through areas with bright light, and similar barriers. I also shared how I get around these barriers by using assistive technology devices such as video magnifiers, tinted glasses, and even blindness canes so that I can access the world around me, since the world isn’t in large print with an inverted display.

girl writing in notebook with phone and laptop

The biggest gift my TVI gave me before I left for college was the ability to self-advocate and the knowledge that I would be able to face any situation I was given. More than 50 percent of college students with vision impairments stop attending college after the first year, mostly for reasons related to their disability, but my TVI ensured that I would have the confidence to speak up if I ran into an issue in the classroom or workplace, and find a way to solve the problem. No matter how intimidating the situation may be, I know that I can find a solution and continue to be successful with whatever I do.

Writing for Paths To Technology has allowed me to share the impact my TVI had on me, and how developing strong transition skills today can create strong and confident college students for the future. I’ll be thinking of my TVI and everyone else that supported me when I get my diploma in May!

Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP): A Canada-wide Program to Improve Student Achievement

There is a deep understanding across Canada of the need to enhance strategies to improve Aboriginal student success. There are approximately 1.7 million Aboriginal People in Canada, and one third are under the age of 15 — making them the youngest and fastest growing demographic in the country.

Group of people in front of Nish Dish market
AYEP students visit Nish Dish catering.

A real concern for Canada is the low Aboriginal high school graduation rate; the non-Aboriginal high school graduation rate is about 92 percent while the Aboriginal rate remains at about 50 percent. The Martin Family Initiative (MFI), a charitable foundation, was established in 2008 to help address these issues.  

A decade ago, MFI ( launched the Grade 11 and 12 Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program (AYEP) to encourage Aboriginal students to stay in school, to learn about the Canadian economy and to acquire entrepreneurial knowledge and experience.

AYEP is currently offered in 51 schools across Canada; approximately 4,600 students have participated in AYEP since its inception. The 220-hour curriculum:

AYEP students visit the Healing Centre
AYEP students visit the Healing Centre.
  • Contains Aboriginal content, including case studies and examples of successful Canadian Aboriginal business leaders.
  • Uses innovative hands-on activities, guest speakers and business mentors to help students learn how to create a product-based and/or service-driven business and about the services provided by banks and credit unions.
  • Improves students’ proficiency in financial literacy, business, mathematics, English, accounting, marketing and information and communications technology, while supporting the acquisition of self-confidence, as well as communication and leadership skills.  
  • Employs a variety of teaching strategies including simulations, competitions, guest speakers, field trips to businesses and mentoring.

MFI determined that there was a need for Aboriginal-focused textbooks and led the development of AYEP’s instructor and student resource materials. These teaching materials are the first of their kind in Canada.

A 60-hour non-credit course for Aboriginal adults has recently been developed; it includes key elements of the Grade 11 and the Grade 12 AYEP courses. This course is flexible and can be offered over multiple weekends, or daily over two weeks, or in other combinations.

MFI, like the Johnson Scholarship Foundation, firmly believes that education is the best means to empower people to become more independent and to participate more fully in the benefits of our society. Our range of targeted programs exemplifies this belief.

Dr. Carlana Lindeman began her career in education as a teacher and principal before joining the Ontario Ministry of Education (EDU). For 18 years she worked with school boards, and First Nation schools and organizations, to improve student achievement. In July 2008, she became the Education Program Director for the Martin Family Initiative, where she supports various strategies and activities related to Indigenous students across Canada. In 2009, she was awarded the Sandra D. Lang Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ontario Government for the depth and quality of service she provided to students, families and communities across Ontario.

Conference Attendance Inspires Young Minds to Keep Exploring

This post originally appeared on the Dalhousie University Global Health Office blog.

Fola Akpan is a Dalhousie University student studying kinesiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Through Johnson Scholarship Foundation funding, Dalhousie’s Indigenous and African Nova Scotia bursary program is designed as an initiative for Indigenous students (First Nation, Inuit and Métis) and African Nova Scotians at Dalhousie. The goal of the program is to enable students to attend extracurricular programs such as conferences as part of their professional development.  Fola recently attended a local conference with the support of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. Here is her experience, in her words.

In August of 2018, I attended the Canadian Society for Biomechanics annual conference held in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Earlier that summer I had been working in the biomechanics lab at Dalhousie in a summer researcher position. I had attended research days and listened to postgraduate students present on the research that they conducted, but I had little understanding of the research being conducted at other universities. While moving through the conference, I was able to interact with many individuals, varying from honors undergraduate students to seasoned veterans in the field of biomechanics. It was wonderful to listen to them speak about their research, watch the various stages of learning, and to hear about the things that people were passionate about. Going in with the mindset to simply observe helped me learn about academia through many lenses, from the scientific discoveries, to how to clearly present complex information.

Overall, my experience at CBS 2018 was educational in ways that transcended the simple translation of scientific information from one person to another. I watched skillful communicators take complex ideas and simplify them into pieces that were easy for me, a person with limited knowledge, to comprehend. I learned that scientific knowledge and new discoveries are built with tiny steps and contributions that may not seem significant at the initial stages. I was inspired to be a better researcher, not only for my sake, and the scientific community, but for the ones behind me who may see a path to pursue their passions.

The Global Health Office has more information on Dalhousie’s diversity programs.

Fola Akpan is a Dalhousie University student studying kinesiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences.